When it comes to religious freedom in America, Attorney General Bill Barr is about as staunch a defendant as you’ll find.
During this coronavirus crisis, Barr and his team over at The Department of Justice have been busy working to ensure that religious organizations are being given the same rights as other establishments, particularly as it pertains to municipalities’ plans to reopen their economies.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has placed churches in the “phase 3” portion of his plan to restart the Golden State, despite the fact that establishments with similar social distancing risks are being allowed to reopen in phases 1 and 2
The DOJ isn’t happy about it.
Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband pointed out that Newsom’s plan allows a variety of businesses to reopen in “Stage 2,” but does not allow churches and other houses of worship to reopen until “Stage 3,” for no apparent reason.
Citing Attorney General William Barr’s April memorandum warning state and local governments to respect First Amendment rights of religious freedom — “[T]he Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis,” Barr wrote — Dreiband argued that while California could determine the pace of its reopening, it could not infringe on religion…
The language used by Dreiband was stern…to say the least:
Laws that do not treat religious activities equally with comparable nonreligious activities are subject to heightened scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. … Religious gatherings may not be singled out for unequal treatment compared to other nonreligious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest, absent the most compelling reasons.
California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential ecommerce, are included on the [essential workforce] list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden, regardless of whether remote worship is practical or not.
Places of worship are not permitted to hold religious worship services until Stage 3. However, in Stage 2, schools, restaurants, factories, offices, shopping malls, swap meets, and others are permitted to operate with social distancing.
Whatever level of restrictions you adopt, these civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature.
As of this writing, Governor Newsom has yet to explain his reasoning.